Rory MccGwire of Atom Content Marketing looks at how law firms should approach winning more clients. (Updated 4 August 2021)
If you are a typical lawyer, you don't do sales, nor do you want to do sales. Your legal expertise and the firm's reputation are what bring in the business, and that's the way you like it. As far as possible, you'd like to be left alone to get on with dealing with pressing legal issues.
But even the most successful firms, with loyal clients and a reputation for expertise, cannot rest on their laurels. Other firms are out there competing more ferociously than ever, and traditional pricing models are under threat. Making sure your firm has a pipeline of new clients is vital.
"The bad news is that you're selling in a competitive market. The good news is that most of your competitors don't like selling either"
Jon Baker, author and speaker, The Excedia Group
The sales attitude
As it happens, lawyers' reluctance to sell can be a trump card. Clients don't like being sold to either. They want to feel that you care more about their problems than your billable hours.
So individual partners and associates network, while you have employees to deal with ‘marketing' and ‘business development'. That is excellent. It plays to your strengths and lets you use your time effectively.
By all means employ people to do the work that doesn't need a partner's involvement. Better yet, get the partners out of the way. Give your employees the power to make decisions, support and motivate them. But recognise that sometimes fee earners need to get their hands dirty too.
As a firm, you need to be committed to winning new clients, however you like to describe it. Budget for it and prioritise it. If lawyers aren't comfortable with their part in the process, give them the training they need.
Before you do anything about reaching out to new clients, focus on your existing clients. If nothing else, getting repeat business is cheaper and easier than winning new clients. So stay in contact with them. Make sure you really understand their needs. Deliver excellent service.
It's all part of building your reputation. And as well as retaining that client, you can ask for recommendations and testimonials. If you're building relationships with individual contacts at commercial clients, you'll have a strong lead into any new company they move to.
At the same time, your existing clients tell you a lot about what new leads you might want to target. Who are your most profitable clients? What characteristics do they share, and how has that helped you to win their business? Where can you find more clients like them?
"Law firms consistently identify reputation and referrals as their most important sources of new leads"
Jim Jack, E&O portfolio management lead, Travelers
The second best place to win new business, after existing clients? Existing clients. Are there opportunities for other practice areas to sell to the same client? In larger law firms, it's not unusual for different practice areas to operate largely independently. Make it a priority to explore opportunities to cross-sell.
- Encourage networking within the firm, building relationships across different practice areas. Publicise client successes internally, so that people are aware of other practice areas' achievements.
- Incentivise fee earners to share leads. Highlight how multiple relationships with a single client can build loyalty, benefiting everyone.
- Share client information across the firm through your CRM system. Highlight new client wins so that everyone is aware of potential opportunities.
- Involve business development employees – they are more likely to be focused on cross-selling than fee earners.
- Sit down as a team to review key clients and their needs. Monitor client developments and actively scan for opportunities – for example, if they are expanding, or if the partner at a competing firm who handled their litigation has moved.
For some practice areas, selling to referrers can be very rewarding. Rather than winning a single new client, you create a stream of hot leads.
For private client services, think about the other professionals they come into contact with – accountants, estate agents and so on. Private clients can be particularly reliant on recommendations, as they have neither the time nor the expertise to evaluate competing firms.
Other law firms can also be a rich source of referrals, especially if you have in-depth experience in particular areas. Or you might look to become part of an international network, cross-referring work for internationally mobile individuals and companies operating in several jurisdictions.
Bear in mind that ideally you want referrers to actively recommend you to their contacts, rather than just passing on names. It may take time to build a strong enough relationship for a referrer to make the effort on your behalf.
"Justify the referrer's faith in you. Always follow up on recommendations they pass on, even if that means helping the client find a more suitable lawyer"
Heather Townsend, author and speaker, The Excedia Group
Selling to corporates
If you are approaching larger corporate clients, you need a team and a plan.
- Find out everything you can about the client. Who are the key influencers, what is happening in the business, what are the biggest issues facing them? Which lawyers do they already use, and can you learn what they like and dislike about them?
- Think about what they might find interesting. Think about how you can get this in front of them – for example, through your firm's existing network, or by creating a relevant event to invite them to.
- Work towards getting a face-to-face or video meeting. Then ask great questions that show how well you understand their sort of business while giving you more insight into their needs. "Our experience with other fintech companies is that funding and compliance are their biggest concerns – how about you?"
- Share what you learn with your partners. Translate client business issues into potential service opportunities. For example, expansion into new markets requiring IP protection and distribution agreements.
- Look for opportunities to demonstrate value. Share your thoughts back to the client. Ask if they would like to be added to the mailing list for your legal risks monitoring service. Offer to review their current agreements or policies.
Promoting the firm
Choose the marketing techniques that best reach your target market and play to your strengths.
Networking will invariably be part of your plans, whether you are taking part in other events or creating your own opportunities to meet selected individuals. Approach it in a spirit of learning about their needs and how you can help, rather than finding people you can use.
Make a point of actively working your network. Set yourself targets – an event each month, one lunch meeting a week, phone one contact a week (not including any live matters). Think up a reason to get in touch, block out time and do it.
Meanwhile, your business development people will be working on advertising, PR, your website and so on, to generate new leads. Make sure you understand what your role is – for example, if you need to help with the firm's social media presence.
Make sure the firm has the right systems to respond brilliantly to enquiries. Make yourself available for the vital initial meetings where leads are converted into new clients.
"You need to be instantly visible, appealing, and shouting from the rooftops about how you offer a different, better service than your competition. If you aren't using the internet effectively to do this, you are missing out on an absolutely key opportunity."
Chris Davidson, business development director, Moore Legal Technology
Weigh up any opportunities to tender for business carefully. You need to feel that you have a real chance of success to justify the often substantial work involved. The best opportunities are those where you have an existing relationship, and have been involved in shaping the tender requirements.
- Why are they running the tender, and why were you included? Who else is competing? Do you have any special strengths that match their needs or are you just making up the numbers?
- Is the tender for a specific transaction or to join their panel of lawyers? If the latter, who else is on the panel and how do they allocate work?
- What is the deadline? If there isn't one, are they just trying to put pressure on their existing lawyers?
- What are the selection criteria? How important is price and are they interested in alternative fee arrangements?
Assess the cost-effectiveness of your different marketing efforts. Track where leads come from so that you can see what brought in each client.
Try to include all the costs. As well as costs like outside suppliers, these might include the time costs of employees working on ad campaigns or making follow-up calls.
Your own time may be more difficult to value – should you cost the half-hour you spent on a free initial consultation? Were the three hours you spent networking in the evening something you enjoyed anyway in your ‘free' time? The best answer may lie somewhere in the middle unless you are clearly sacrificing billable work to fulfil your marketing commitments.
Equally, try to assess each new client's lifetime value rather than just the immediate work they bring. Use your experience to judge how much continuing business you might expect.
Whatever works best, do more of it.
Winning new clients top ten
- Commit to winning new clients – as a firm and as individual partners.
- Deliver outstanding service to existing clients to boost your reputation.
- Ask clients for recommendations and referrals.
- Actively identify opportunities to cross-sell other partners' services.
- Target potential referrers who could provide multiple leads.
- Find out as much as possible about potential clients' needs before trying to sell to them.
- Be prepared to invest in marketing to major clients; create a dedicated client team.
- Promote your business where your target clients are, including online.
- Treat tender opportunities with caution; only proceed if you have a realistic chance of winning.
- Find out what works and do more of it.